By Max Winter | Press Play April 25, 2014 at 11:51PM
There’s a moment, early on in Hateship Loveship--a new Liza Johnson film sensitively adapted by Mark Poirier from a story by Canadian literary natural resource Alice Munro--where Kristen Wiig kisses a mirror. When I say kisses, I suppose I mean more than that: she really makes out with it. It’s an odd moment, one of many flickers of oddness coming from Wiig in a film in which everything we know of Johanna Parry, the habitual caregiver she plays, comes in flickers. And these minute actions are all tinged with the same brand of socially-challenged peculiarity: the way she wears her hair, the way she talks, certainly the way she dresses, somewhere between frumpy and homely, perhaps just north of what they’re calling “normcore” these days. Although I’m not the first to notice the scene, it intrigues me, not least because it comes closest, of any juncture in the film, to a breakout, of sorts, the sort of moment that can topple a movie if ill-played, but is handled just delicately enough here to work, and near-perfectly. Johanna has just had good news, or thinks she has: Ken, the estranged father of Sabitha, the girl she’s traveled to Solon, Iowa to take care of (after her previous client passed away, at the film’s beginning), seems to have some romantic interest in Samantha, or so he says in his letters from Chicago, which are actually written by Sabitha and her nasty-cute best friend, out of the sort of random sourceless meanness from which stories ranging from A Clockwork Orange to Lord of the Flies to Heavenly Creatures were built. The unknowing suitor is given sloppy grace here by Guy Pearce, not seemingly a catch at first, but a man who gradually reveals something of himself—this is indeed all we can say of him. This is too subtle a movie for a transformation of Hollywood proportions to occur, as much as the film might try to do so by its end, with its seemingly patched rifts; no one here changes, really, instead gravitating towards positions of greater comfort with each other, which is all we humans can do, 98 per cent of the time. At the moment in question, the make-out scene with the mirror, we don’t expect anything of this kind to come from Johanna, or from Wiig, really. It’s awkward when comedic actors play serious roles, a bit like watching Olympic ice skating, waiting for the big stumble to come—will it be this jump? Or that swerve? What will finally topple the athlete, destroy her chances? And yet primarily comedic actors have put on serious clothes and worn them well in the past: Robin Williams did it in The World According to Garp, and again in Insomnia; Will Ferrell did it in Everything Must Go and Winter Passing, with likable but sad aplomb; Jennifer Aniston did it in The Good Girl, a film few saw but many appreciated. Granted, for someone with Wiig’s past in improv theater, in which everything rests upon one’s ability to portray grand things about a character with telling economy, and in which such a spontaneous action, at the right moment, could explode a scene outwards, or take it in a previously unforeseen direction, the moment might not be such a stretch. Who knows if it was scripted, unscripted…? Mirror scenes always carry with them a certain innate charge: from Robert DeNiro’s famous moment of rhetorical self-interrogation in Taxi Driver to Jon Voight’s more benign silent exchange with himself in Midnight Cowboy, there’s always a bit of static when a mirror appears in a film, as the lens looks at the lens looks at the lens. Usually, they indicate a moment of insecurity, whether it's DeNiro's attempts to bolster his courage with a succession of "You lookin' at me"s or Jon Voight's checking of his "look." In this case, though, the moment is a declaration of self-love--if also an expression of cooped-up lust. Whatever the case, the moment forecasts everything that is to follow: Johanna’s trip to Chicago to clean up, both literally and figuratively, poor Ken’s life, her romance with him, the attempted repair of a family broken apart by a tragedy, a drunken driving accident which killed Sabitha’s mother, leaving Sabitha under the unusually buttoned-up and repressed watch of Mr. McCauley, Ken’s father-in-law, played here quite modestly by Nick Nolte. And, as we watch these events unfold in quiet fashion, with a soundtrack peppered with soft honky-tonk songs, we’re reminded that there is room, indeed, in a medium in which stridency pays, literally and figuratively, for the “small” movie, whose strength grows from the words people say or don’t say to each other, and the things they do, have done, and will do. If one is able to look at one’s self in the mirror and then, rather than turning away, plant a rather maudlin and exaggerated kiss, the kind you’d only plant if no one else was there, what does that say, in particular, about where one has arrived and where one might go? At the very least, it suggests that one has looked at one's self and, rather than seeing its smallness, chosen to embrace its enormity.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.